Saturday, August 9, 2014

Movie Review: Bye Bye Birdie

Back in the day I used to do some writing for the website Suite101. That place is long gone now but my writing remains.

I mostly did book and film reviews and I'm still proud of a couple of them. Let's take a look:

Bye Bye Birdie- Teenage Angst, Ann-Margret Style

There's no doubt about it, "Bye Bye Birdie (1963)" is a very dated movie. The script is corny, the jokes are labored and it expects us to believe that Paul Lynde could ever father a child. But "Bye Bye Birdie" has still managed to remain a classic, and that is because of Ann-Margret's remarkable performance as a teenage girl desperate to become a woman.

"Bye Bye Birdie," an adaptation of the hit Broadway musical of the same name, begins with the drafting of Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson), an Elvis Presley type, into the army. A struggling songwriter, Albert Patterson (Dick Van Dye), and his girlfriend, Rosie Deleon (Janet Leigh), cook up a scheme to have Birdie appear on "The Ed Sullivan Show" just before he leaves and perform a song Albert wrote, "One Last Kiss," while kissing a randomly-selected, adoring fan. Perfect! What could go wrong?

Albert, Rosie, and Birdie's entourage arrive in the town of Sweet Apple, Ohio to meet the lucky fan, Kim McAfee (Ann-Margret), who is thrilled beyond words to receive a kiss from Birdie, and her boyfriend, Hugo (Bobby Rydell), who isn't as thrilled as she is. Later, at a rehearsal for the show, Birdie kisses Kim, causing her to faint, and igniting Hugo's anger. Kim insists the staged kiss means nothing, but does it? Will Birdie come between the two high school sweethearts?

Bye Bye Childhood

As you can see from the brief synopsis, "Bye Bye Birdie" has a ridiculous premise. And that's not even taking into account Janet Leigh's dance number with the Shriners, or the painfully unfunny jabs at Soviet-era Russians. But despite all of that, "Bye Bye Birdie" is still a fondly remembered movie, and its constant revivals on Broadway indicate that its appeal hasn't waned. This enduring popularity can be traced back to Ann-Margret's character, Kim, whose arc, or character growth throughout the story, is the real center of the film.

In her opening musical number, “How Lovely to be a Woman,” Kim sings about her blossoming from an awkward fifteen-year-old girl to a mature and confident sixteen-year-old woman. Throughout the song she continually celebrates what's changed about her and all the things she can't wait to do. The song, and indeed her character arc in the film, is about one teenager's eager sexual maturity from a child to an adult. Kim begins the film ready to take the plunge into womanhood. The arrival of Conrad Birdie into town, and the jealousy of her boyfriend, gives her license to test out her new-found sexual desires.

Kim and Hugo's spat is essentially about this issue; Hugo can't accept Kim's burgeoning womanhood, and she's not going to wait for him to get it. The song "A Lot of Livin’ to Do" is a perfect example. Kim's section in the number is drenched with pure, sexual longing, as she so wants to be perceived as a woman by her boyfriend and by everyone at the club, and her flirtation with the men demonstrates what she perceives to be sexual maturity.

 Growing Up is Hard to Do

Unfortunately for Kim, Birdie is something with a cad, and she later reunites with Hugo, wiser and with a new sense of real maturity. The best evidence of this are the film's opening book ends. In the opening, Kim sings "'Bye Bye Birdie" in a shrill, excitable manner. She is all energy and passion, and desperately wishes she could help Birdie say goodbye. But in the ending reprise, Kim gladly says goodbye and good riddance, and her voice is much more confident and mature. Birdie's no longer important to her identity as a young woman.

This character arc, Kim's growth from an eager girl to a mature young adult, is why the film version of "Bye Bye Birdie" still resonates after all these years. Ann-Margret plays Kim with such sincerity and honesty that it genuinely takes the viewer by surprise. All the corny show-biz jokes and cliches are almost a perfect counterpoint to Kim's story. That's not to say Kim's arc is a shockingly realistic take on teenage sexual development (most people aren't lucky enough to meet a pop star when they're young) but it feels right. Ann-Margret's performance captures that confusion that marks young teenagers’ lives, (they’re not children but not quite adults yet, either), and skillfully plays it for both laughs and drama.

There are many other elements to Bye Bye Birdie, from the music, to the script, to the choreography, but Ann-Margret’s character and performance remain the film’s heart and soul, and the reason why the film still remains a classic.

No comments:

Post a Comment